Mar 28

With friends like these; or what it means to be an ally

The other day, Anders, a frequent commenter on Natalie Reed’s blog, asked what people thought being an ally to a particular social movement should look like.  While he may have been specifically looking at the transgender movement, I am going to consider this question broadly across all social movements toward equality.

I told him that it was a complicated question. It is. I told him that it started with listening. It does. I told him it ended with doing the right thing with the tools we have. It does that as well.

This post is all about the messy middle.

And boy-oh- boy does it get messy.

To look at being an ally and what that means I am going to draw a complicated analogy that in simple form looks like this:

Ally: Social Movement as Friend: Person

If you think about it in the terms that I replied to Anders in, it makes sense. Being a friend starts with listening and ends with doing the right thing with the tools we have. The rest is likewise another messy middle.

So what does it mean to listen to your person if you are a friend? I am sure we all have had That Friend™, the one who always one-ups you. “I got a ticket yesterday.” “Oh I’m sorry. Let me tell you about my accident last week,” or “I’m so sad about the anniversary of my mom’s passing.” “I know what you mean. My mom isn’t dead but I don’t think I could go on without her.” Now this friend is one who appears to be listening because their replies seem totally in context, but rather than taking the chance to focus on your needs for just one moment, they instead make it “all about them.” They have co-opted your pain, your suffering.

Sometimes it is hard to tell if your friend is only pretending to listen or if they are the type of friend who feels the need to relate somehow. It can take months of interaction. That Friend™ has done a fantastic job of playing on our weaknesses in social cues. Well timed righteous indignation at the mere suggestion they may be less than concerned about you.

Sound familiar to our Allies™ in social movements?

Let me clarify:

A while back, Greta Christina posted in her fantastic style a post entitled, Why “Yes, But” is the Wrong Response to Misogyny. In it she calls out the Allies™ for what they are. People pretending to listen before co-opting the pain of a social movement. The righteous indignation then happened in full force. Claims that Greta left no room for debate on methods by explaining that “yes, but” is not what allies do. I am going to stop right here and say yes, if you read Greta’s words and nothing else that feminists have been saying, the assessment that there is no wiggle room might be somewhat right. The Allies™ hadn’t been listening all along and suddenly were pissed that the social movement has called them on their negligence.

So what does it mean to listen as a friend, as an ally? It certainly doesn’t mean you can’t take your person’s feelings or your social movement’s goals and personalize them. Absolutely you can attempt to empathize, but if friendship, ally-ship is important to you, then you will make the efforts to not make the conversation “all about you.” You will really listen and not cherry pick for the chance to steal the show.

This is where we get to the messy middle.

What if your person, your movement, says something you disagree with? Can you protest?

Think about it like this:

You are my friend and amidst ranting about a mistake made in my order at the local restaurant, I manage to let slide something ablest. In short, I call the order taker a “retard.” Can you call me out on that? Yes. I have done something wrong. Something that violates your ethical code. As a friend you have interests that extend beyond your person’s interests. It isn’t co-opting my pain by politely (or even not so politely) pointing out that I am being ableist.

On the other hand, if I am talking about the guy harassing me at work and I let slip that I wish I could crush him beneath my stiletto so he knows how it feels, and you proceed to say “How dare you? Violence is abhorrent,” you haven’t been listening to me all along. You have ignored that I am not actually a violent person. You have ignored that I am human and sometimes have knee jerk reactions to horrible situations. You have ceased to be a friend, and become the Person With All The Answers™.

So lets look at it in the context of a real example of contention within a movement. Consider the statement “Die Cis Scum.” Certainly to be an effective movement, trans people need cis allies, and yet this statement is a wedge issue for sure. I personally enjoy wedge issues because they end up distinguishing allies from Allies™. “Die Cis Scum” is one of those teaching moments. Lets examine the difference in types of responses between allies and Allies™ in this context. As an ally, you may conscientiously object to implication of violence as a tactic for effecting social change. That is ok. (My friends don’t always want to do the things I want to do). You become an Ally™ the moment you start suggesting that trans people are either promoting violence or violent themselves when they empathize with the “Die Cis Scum” sentiment. Both of those are pure straw arguments meant to co-opt the conversation away from  the movement and do little more than to prove you weren’t listening in the first place.

I didn’t lie when I said that it was messy.

The next thing I want to look at is some things that friends, allies, don’t do.

Friends don’t make jokes at my expense. My friends would never think it is appropriate to make light of child rapists around me. Those who I call my friends, would have been listening all along and know how much something like that could hurt my feelings. Not only would they know, but they would also care enough to not hurt my feelings.

In parallel, allies don’t make jokes at the expense of the movement. I would expect an ally of a feminist movement to automatically know what is wrong with asking “Are you on the rag?” even if they meant it as a joke. Allies don’t make jokes that perpetuate the stereotypes we are trying to tear down together.

Friends don’t avoid your calls. If you have reached the point that you don’t want to take my calls anymore, we have stopped being friends. The reason we have stopped being friends may be my fault, but nonetheless, without communication, I assume the friendship is done.

The same holds true for allies. If a social movement continually calls on you for help and you continually ignore them because 1) you don’t ever agree with their methods/goals, or 2) you have better things to do, you are probably no longer an ally to that social movement.

I am going to interject here and describe a scenario where an ally: social movement ended because their methods/goals became mutually incompatible. Recently, blogger Jadehawk, divorced herself as an ally to the rad fem movement. She clearly lays out her reasons in her post. Rather than continuing to call herself an ally she stood up and said, I no longer agree with you enough to call you my movement. I hope I can expect the same courtesy if my friends dump me.

My friends don’t sabotage me. I recently quit smoking. It was  hard since giving up addictions typically are. In moments of weakness and sheer exasperation at the world, I sometimes expressed the desire to smoke. I get two responses to this expression. My friends (those who have been listening to me this whole time and know how much I want to quit) try and support me in my efforts. They tell me to breathe, to try and calm down, or that my craving will pass. They know my ultimate goal and they are helping me to achieve it. The other response is “You want a cigarette? I can give you one.” I can only think of this person as someone who wants to make my life more difficult. They have now introduced me into a even greater dilemma than I was in before. Didn’t they know that if I wanted to fall of the wagon, I would bum a smoke? It is more like they didn’t care enough to try and help me get through the hard times. Those people aren’t my friends.

Likewise allies in social movements don’t try and sabotage the movement. All too often when fighting privilege, it can seem like an uphill battle. When we get one glimmer of hope in fighting that battle, don’t try telling us our enthusiasm is pointless. Don’t help us give up. Motivate us. Help us. Be an ally.

Friends don’t try to tell me how to live my life. Advice is different. Advice is welcomed by a preemptive request for said advice. When That  Friend™ is constantly telling me that I am raising my kids wrong though, I think that they want me to be them. I think my Friend™ doesn’t like me, or they wouldn’t keep trying to change me.

Allies in social movements don’t try to take over the movement themselves. They accept that advice is sometimes welcomed but not always what is needed or appreciated. They recognize that the movement sometimes must create an identity separate from its allies in order to maintain overall cohesiveness.Think about the divide between accommodationist and confrontationalists in the atheist movement. Allies the two should be, but when members of one side or the other decided theirs it the One True Way™, they cease to be allies and instead are just bossy neighbors with similar tastes.

So knowing what not to do with the tools you have, what are some of the “right” things that friends, allies can do with the tools you have?

My friends give me their time. They may lend an ear or helping hand when I need it. They might even lend or give me money from time to time. Being a good person back to them, I try not to demand too much of my friends. Friends give me their voices. They defend me when my enemies put me down (even if I am not around).  Friends respect me.

Allies give their time. They listen, help organize, recruit, and donate. Being a good social movement, they should recognize that their allies do not all have the same tools and will not demand more than an ally can give. Allies give their voices. They help the social movement even when its members aren’t watching. Allies respect their movement.

But some times friends and their persons need to go their separate ways.

Sometimes allies and movements need to go their separate ways.

And that is ok.

If I suddenly decide that arson is a great pastime and my friend is horribly upset by this new development and cannot change my mind, I expect it is time for our friendship to dissolve.

If your movement’s goals become incompatible with yours, quit your movement. Be like Jadehawk above and sever ties. Don’t give your movement the impression that you remain their ally while stabbing them in the back repeatedly. Don’t just pretend, because eventually it will become apparent you are the Ally™ who is not helping. You are the Ally™ who may be harming.

You are not an ally. You are an opponent. And movements no longer have to claim you as one of their own.



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